Obamacare and UK Healthcare – A View from Britain

Being from the UK and following the American media’s stories on ‘Obamacare’ – also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – is often a very useful reminder of how different the two countries are, despite speaking the same language.

The UK System

The UK’s single-payer health care system, the National Health Service (NHS) provides an infinite source of grist for the political mill and by extension the media channels also. One of the world’s biggest employers, the NHS has more employees than the population of Qatar. But beyond the rows about political reform, the way UK citizens access the NHS is simple enough.  There may be waiting lists – and it may be far from perfect, but the way the NHS is funded and run, it means that everyone has access to treatment.

Of course, there are also private healthcare companies in the UK – with more and more people deciding to ‘go private’ all the time. In England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, taking out private medical insurance is affordable and the consumer can tailor their policy to meet their own requirements.

So, if the UK is one of those rare cases where the healthcare system offers treatment universally and for free, why do people opt to buy health cover? One of the main reasons is that with health insurance, people are able to bypass treatment waiting lists. With waiting times recently being reported to have grown 6%, many people simply prefer the option of swift treatment. Going private in the UK doesn’t mean though that the policyholder will have all NHS services replaced – emergency room (Accident & Emergency) treatments aren’t covered by the insurance and so would be administered by NHS professionals at an NHS premises.

The US Situation

All of which is, of course, a very different situation from the States, where it’s estimated that the rising number of people who are uninsured has risen to nearly 50 million. To put that number in some kind of perspective, 50 million is nearly the population of England.

With the PPACA, Obama obviously hopes to plug this insurance gap – but it’s obviously still far from clear whether his continuously controversial new healthcare law will survive, as opposition to it continues to mount, and the law’s constitutional status is debated. At the moment, it seems as if bringing affordable care to the uninsured 50 million could be a harder task for Obama than he’d ever expected it to be.

And the possible alternatives to Obamacare? It’s now time for the politicians to think about what will have to take the ACA’s place if it falls. Nothing fully-formed has so far appeared, although there have been noises  about the possibility of tax breaks allowing people to buy health insurance should they want to do so. But it remains to be seen how this would actually work in practice – or even if it would make a dent in the uninsured figure.

Stuart writes for various health blogs on behalf of Health-On-Line, a British health insurance provider.

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